Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

To My Classic Movie Family: You Are Not Alone

When I was 18, I tried to take my own life. I was saved when my roommate suddenly realized, about a half-hour down the 110 Freeway, that she’d forgotten her birth control, and came back to retrieve it. (And if you ever need to cite an example of the bizarre twists and turns a life can take, feel free to use me as Exhibit A.)

Two years earlier, I had lost my Dad, who was my kindred spirit, my best friend and my . protector. After he was gone, everything and everyone reminded me of him. Even the muscle memory of walking up the steps to our house was too much to bear, knowing he wouldn’t be on the other side of the door. And with a drunken, violent sister just down the hall, home became much less safe, and really no home at all, without him. After she tried to smother me in my sleep, I’d taken to pushing my dresser, which had been my grandmother’s, up against my door before I went to bed, thanking God the whole time that old furniture was so fecking heavy.

dadSo when it came time to go to college, I went as far away as I could without leaving the mainland: from New York to Los Angeles. But I was no less lonely or miserable there, and somehow, as the fervent hope of a new start congealed to despair, things got much worse.

Despair. That’s the thing. That’s the rancid kernel at the heart of depression that blots out hope like a total eclipse, that pours its poison in your ear, telling you that things will never get better, that people will be better off without you or maybe not even miss you at all. It’s the thief in the night that you must fight to keep on the other side of the door, for what it wants to steal is your life. And it’s an imposter—but a deadly convincing one.

What does any of this have to do with classic film, you’re wondering? A close look at my Twitter timeline tells me that a lot of my old-movie friends are struggling with depression, ranging from the blues, to misery over the state of the country, to “I don’t want to be here any more.”

Those of us who love old movies tend to be a sensitive, dreamy lot, yearning for wonderful people we’ll never know. Just being immersed in a world of souls who are long gone can send an undercurrent of simmering sadness even through comedies.

I’ve probably seen The More the Merrier forty times, each time wishing I could be back there on that happy set with them, or that they could be on the sofa watching with me. And there’s something about seeing an old movie starring someone who’s still out there in the world that makes me so happy I sometimes burst into tears. I used to watch Lauren Bacall movies on TCM, wondering if she were watching too, at home in The Dakota. And during every one of my hundred or so viewings of Sunday in New York, I’d think about Rod Taylor, still working hard and being fabulous, out in California.

But then, when they go, it’s so very hard.

And when depression—over anything—deepens to despair, it’s dangerous. In It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart gives us some of the most visceral moments of despair ever set to film. And I think more people identify with him in those scenes than would openly acknowledge, because there’s still such a stigma, not only around mental health issues, but around not being happy all the time. (I’m pretty sure we’re also the only culture that pushes the ridiculous notion of “closure” after losing someone we love.)

stewart-itsawonderfullife-11

So I guess my reason for writing this is to let my old-movie friends know they’re not alone. I had a whole bunch of things I was supposed to do today but I dropped them because I just felt I needed to say that. So much of social media is looking at other people’s highlight reels and feeling crappy by comparison. There is no shame in feeling depressed, or in struggling with mental health problems. Please, please, if you need help, get it. And if you see others who need help, reach out. Let’s all be one another’s Clarence the Angel until the real thing comes along.
______________________________________________________________________________

If you need help, here are hotline numbers around the world:

suicideprevention-1suicideprevention-2

17 Comments

  1. Liz F

    Reading this on the 25th anniversary of my father’s suicide. Trying to hold it together at work. SO glad your roomie went back for the birth control!

    • Thank you, Liz, and I am so very sorry about your Dad. Holding you in my heart as you try to make it through the day.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I suffer from depression too. Childhood is where it started. I’ve always felt better after watching something like Singin’ in the Rain. Anyhow, you are so right about Jimmy and It’s a Wonderful Life — that close-up of him at the bar (broken & desperate) is fantastic!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. Incredibly important. Keep going!

  4. As I said earlier, thank you so much for sharing and being so honest. I’m very glad your friend went back and you are still here with us. I’m proud of you for overcoming the really tough and dark times when you were younger. x

    • Thank you, Maddy!! I hope what I wrote helps others feel less alone.

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m glad for anyone who is able to survive and see things from the other side. I shared my story on my blog last year: https://moviemovieblogblog.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/suicide-is-not-painless/
    I feel for anyone who is in that much pain. So glad you are still with us.

  6. Thank you.

  7. Very moving Janet. Thanks for being you!

  8. Stella aka "fennario"

    “I’m pretty sure we’re also the only culture that pushes the ridiculous notion of “closure” after losing someone we love.” Amen to that! I’ve often said that our society doesn’t allow people to grieve. A few days off work (maybe) and them only if it’s immediate family, not a grandparent, friend, etc. Then we’re expected to snap back to “normal” and if we haven’t, we need to “talk to somebody”, i.e., get help. I’m not talking about the utter despair and suicidal thoughts you describe (in that case, yes, PLEASE reach out!) but normal grieving – it takes a few YEARS to get used to the idea of someone being gone. And you really do get used to it, not “over it”.

    As for being dreamy types, yes, we can be. But I look at where the world is now, and I like to imagine what somebody like Bette Davis or Marlene Dietrich would be doing. Those ladies were tough. And virtually nobody in Hollywood was willing to tolerate nazis and fascists.

    There’s inspiration to be had from these people – not just a hair style or mannerism, but their grit – entertaining behind the front lines, selling War Bonds, opening the Hollywood Canteen, working tirelessly. We beat this thing before. It’s at our own doorstep now, we need to beat it again. And we have a lot of inspiration to draw from!

    Thanks for a great post. May everyone finds it who needs to. I’m bookmarking it for those times I run into anyone who needs one of those phone numbers.

    • Thank you so much, Stella! And if you do a search on Marlene Dietrich on this site, you’ll find a post about her WWII service, as recalled by one of the soldiers she worked with.

      • Stella aka "fennario"

        OMG, this is what I’m talking about! Pure high-tensile steel and the heart of a lion.
        https://sistercelluloid.com/2014/12/27/a-soldier-lovingly-remembers-marlene-dietrich/
        Every time I watch the Blue Angel, I think about what Marlene did during WWII, and contrast that with her costar Emil Jannings, who cast his lot with the Nazis. And we can see which of the two is the iconic one that we still love.
        There’s wonderful stuff on this blog of yours. ❤

  9. I agree that classic movie fans tend to be “a sensitive, dreamy lot, yearning for wonderful people we’ll never know.” So aptly put! Thank you for this poignant and important post.

  10. miselainis

    Thank you, my friend. I too attempted in college. It was 6 years after my dad’s death, and it finally began hitting me when my first boyfriend broke up with me. My first comforting thought was “I’ll just go be with my dad.”

    The last decade or two has been really hard– multiple layoffs, family estrangement (we put the FUN in dysfunctional), and a move to a foreign country. But at the same time, I began my wonderful writing career and meeting all my classic film fan friends. You guys are the best tribe ever!

    Sending warm hugs to whomever needs them.
    🙂

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